Vicar's Sermon

Sermon preached by the Rev'd Fr. Donald L. Turner, Vicar, St. Peter's-at-the-Light Episcopal Church, Barnegat Light, New Jersey, April 21, 2019 (Easter Day - Year C).

St. John 20: 1-18

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

...she turned around and saw Jesus standing there,
but she did not know that it was Jesus.

It seems unusual to me that on this morning of the Resurrection Mary Magdalene does not recognize Jesus in the Garden. She traveled extensively with Jesus as one of his followers. She was a witness of his crucifixion and burial. She is mentioned by name twelve times in the Gospels, more than most of the apostles! She was a “neighbor” of Jesus, from Magdala — whence she gets the name “Mary Magdalene,” Mary of Magdala, a fishing town on the western shore of the Lake of Galilee.

In Luke’s Gospel she is one of the women who helped support Our Lord’s ministry “out of [her own] resources,” indicating that she was probably relatively wealthy. The same reference also states that seven demons had been driven out of her, a way that the ancients sometimes spoke of mental illness. All four gospels identify her, either alone or as a member of a larger group of women, as the first witness to the empty tomb, and the first to testify to Jesus’ resurrection. For these reasons, she is known in many Christian traditions as the “apostle to the apostles.” She was connected to the ministry of Jesus as any of the disciples, so it’s awfully strange that she does not recognize Jesus.

I have offered various explanations through the years in commenting about this puzzling matter. I like the following one best of all. Unfortunately for my ego, it is not original with me! It is proposed by Margaret Silf, who lives in Scotland, a writer and retreat director. She lectures widely on Ignatian spirituality. In her book Inner Compass (Chicago: Loyola Press, 1999) she writes that Mary Magdalene does not recognize Jesus because the context for her image of him is how things were and Jesus “is calling her forward to how things will be.” That is a provocative insight!

That is an allegorical interpretation of the meaning of resurrection, and some people who find it difficult to accept a literal interpretation of the Resurrection will welcome it. Such allegorical interpretations offer an escape from the intellectual embarrassment for some people who cannot accept the truth of the resurrection of the dead. For me, that position is no longer palatable, which is my confession that at one period in my life I was uneasy with interpreting what we celebrate today as a literal event. So I can deal with the challenge of thoughtful minds who tell me that the idea of the Resurrection is “folly to the Greeks, and a stumbling block to the Jews” — those are St. Paul’s words (I Cor. 1: 23). I can accept their intellectual honesty that allows them a contrary belief. And while Paul says that we who believe in the Resurrection are, among all people, to be “most pitied,” (I Cor. 15: 19) I’ll take my stand with him who was not ashamed to say that if there is no resurrection of the dead, then you and I are dead in our sins for eternity.

Still, there is clarity and helpfulness in allegory, so I want to get back to Silf’s perception. Mary Magdalene does not recognize Jesus because she is living in the realm of how things were, and Jesus is calling her to a new experience of how things will be.

How much of our lives is movement from point A to B to C, and so on, with predictable regularity? And the end result is nothing particularly uplifting and encouraging. Think about this for a moment for what we call our “spiritual journey.” Some of you will say that you are “spiritual” but not “religious.” So, it’s likely that for some of you here today participation in the worship, fellowship, and witness of a community of faith is not a regular part of your faith journey. Maybe you rather disdain the idea, but after all it is Easter, it’s usually a lovely time of year, and there is family and family expectations, and so here you are at St. Peter’s-at-the-Light. Maybe you’ve never been in an Episcopal church and this compounds your confusion as to why some people need such an experience!

Now let me speak to those of us for whom regular participation in the worship and mission of a local church is part and parcel of our religious and spiritual journey. Could it be that Resurrection is a clarion call to shake off "how things were?" and seize upon the power that enables us to grasp new vistas of “how things will be?” What if "what will be” is God making a renewed claim upon our lives? What if that claim convicted us of cowardice in our religious practices? If we take Our Lord and the faith of the Church seriously, how can we continue to tip toe around the neuroses of other Christians whom we’d offend if we said such things like, “God is sick and tired of our ‘cheap grace’.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer coined those words. Bonhoeffer was hanged by his German Nazi brothers for his part in the attempt to assassinate Hitler. Martin Luther King, Jr., who often followed in the steps of Bonhoeffer, once said, “When I took up the cross I recognized its meaning. The cross is something that you bear, and ultimately, that you die on.”

It is often said, “There can be no Resurrection without the Cross.” That should be obvious. The crucifixion, however, was “how things were.” Thank God that was not the final word! It may also be said, “There can be no Cross without the Resurrection.” If the Cross is the last word, then it’s all over. The Resurrection is God’s final answer, it shows us “how things will be” — how to live victoriously now, and how to abide in the blessed hope of eternal life! This is how it will be, my friends. Choose this day to live in that hope, and leave behind your doubts!

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Copies of Fr. Turner's sermons are always available each Sunday on the table in the rear of the Nave. He advises that you do not take a copy to follow him while he is preaching because he preaches from memory of the manuscript and often departs from the text, especially if he thinks of a good joke! Sermons are not lengthy. The Vicar had a Professor of Homiletics who told the class, "If you can't strike oil in ten minutes, quit boring!"